IBM brings clients to Second Life

IBM announced Tuesday a new business centre that won’t actually exist at all — it is in the online 3D virtual world Second Life.

The new virtual business centre would function as a gathering place, according to Lee Dierdorff, IBM’s vice-president of Web strategy and enablement.  “IBM salespeople, clients, and partners can meet, learn, and collaborate, and conduct business,” he said. “It would be staffed by real salespeople — not kiosks or robots.”

He said that this push into virtual worlds is the result of seeking to engage with people in the way they want to engage. “And it’s in 3D virtual worlds,” said Dierdorff.

IBM already has a significant presence in Second Life, manufacturing presences for other companies (like Sears and Circuit City) and buying up many plots of virtual real estate. According to Dierdorff, 4,000 IBM employees already dabble in Second Life, a number which has grown five times since last December.

The virtual business centre would feature some of these Second Life denizens. It will be managed and staffed by 30 to 40 on-call workers from within the sales and distribution unit, along with client reps, sales specialists, and business and technology support personnel. All would be volunteering in the centre on top of their day jobs; the centre would be fully staffed during North American, Latin American, and European time-zones.

Merely duplicating corporate headquarters in Second Life is insufficient, according to Dierdorff, who said that IBM thinks the “inherently social” aspect of Second Life is the key to a successful implementation of this new business centre.

It would have six different aspects, most centred on interpersonal interaction. A reception centre would feature an IBM avatar that would welcome guests (anyone can come into the centre), while the sales centre would have brand specialists at all times to educate on products, services, and consulting.

(If a visitor wanted to actually purchase something, the IBM representative could point them toward the appropriate Web site or phone number to call.) A tech support library would give participants access to technical information such as PDF’s and Redbooks, and would feature a librarian that could answer any questions. The innovation centre would allow avatars to sit back and “relax” and have a coffee while perusing IBM videos and materials. IBM would also be able to hold events and group meetings in the briefing centre; the conference centre offers private break-out rooms for smaller meetings.

One of the benefits of this new technology, according to IBM researcher and futurist Jean-Paul Jacob, is the neutrality of the virtual world. “You respect their knowledge and their contribution…not their colour or their position,” he said.

Dierdorff said that this new platform will offer significant advantages over the traditional 2D environment. He said, “( has three million pages, which can be a challenge to navigate. Finding specific information can be a problem. We support (Web) 1.0 technology, but now we want to offer Web 2.0 services and technology-content syndication, collaboration techniques, and social collaboration.”

In addition to the level footing Jacob is touting, he said that the environment also takes advantage of one of the future ways of communicating: “folksonomy” in the 5D environment, which is comprised of the 2D world of the Web and the 3D world of online virtual communities. Said Jacob: “The Internet knows almost everything, but tells us almost nothing. When you want to find a Redbook, for instance, it can be very hard to do that search. But the only real way to search in 5D is to put a question to others who can ask others and the answer may or may not come back to you. It’s part of social search. Getting information from colleagues (online) — that’s folksonomy.”

Dierdorff cites this as a “major evolutionary point” in time, similar to when people questioned whether the Internet would ever be a place to do business. Other hindering factors, Dierdorff said, are the “game-ish” aspects of Second Life. “It’s a little bit hokey, a little bit fun. I’m not sure CEOs are going to be walking around in Second Life, but I expect that staff folks will. If the 5D aspects actually help people, if they can find content faster, it will catch on,” he said.

Chris Sherman, executive director of Austin, Texas-based virtual world trade event organizer Virtual Worlds Management , said that he has some questions, too. “I question how long it’s going to take to get partners and customers to readily accept the technology. How long will it take for them to be as comfortable as IBM is?” he said.

Said Dierdorff: “This is very much an experiment. But it is a relevant and valuable dialogue, and we’re establishing a strong relationship with our clients-it’s the quality of dialogue, not a quantity of business. We’re not forecasting sales for this right now, but it’s an important business move to have.”

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